The Convent of the Good Shepherd.

After Alice Leschallas died in 1934 Highams was sold. It had been a luxurious home for about a  hundred years, but times were changing. Instead of a wealthy individual, the next owner was a religious organisation. Highams Hall became the Roman Catholic Convent of the Good Shepherd.

Good shepherd

The Convent of the Good Shepherd. (Image courtesy Mary Bennett.)

The Order held to the high ideal of offering a refuge to those in need, and during their time at Valley End many found a home with them.

There were three orders of nuns in the convent; there were the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who ran the training school; there was an enclosed order of Magdalenes; and there were the auxiliaries, who were women who had devoted their lives to the convent.

The buildings began to sprawl. There was the laundry, dormitories, a chapel, a graveyard, a surgery, cottages, employees had homes in the grounds…

The site must have been busy. For some years the chapel was the parish church for the RC parish of Bagshot, and was a major centre of activity for local Catholics.

The convent is particularly remembered for the young women they sheltered. There are local stories that it was a mother and baby home, but the inspection reports, which start in 1951, make no mention of this. Some, although not all, of the girls were referred from the Probation Service. Others were in need of care and protection, which they found at the Good Shepherd.

 

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Photograph from Woking Review, Sept. 1966. (Included in National Archives HO 366/298)

The girls worked in the laundry. It was a Training School, and the idea was to give them work experience. At one point an assembly line was introduced for the same reason, but didn’t last long.

The young women seem to have been happy there. In 1964 one girl told an inspector that “Here they are polite and friendly even when you do something wrong.”

That year the report described how many girls, who were unmanageable elsewhere, settled at the Good Shepherd and appreciated the gentle and peaceful atmosphere. The convent provided a busy, ordered day in a quiet environment.

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Photograph from Woking Review, Sept. 1966. (Included in National Archives HO 366/298)

Many seem to have enjoyed their time there. Women would visit after they had left, sometimes bringing their husbands and children with them. One girl returned to be married in the chapel.

All this was expensive. Finance had always been a problem. The Training School closed in 1973, and space was leased to the Adult Education Institute.

“Adult Education had the ground floor. I don’t know what they did with the rest of the building. It came under Camberley Adult Education, and the headmaster’s wife Joyce Tolley ran it. They had day classes; they had evening classes. They had upholstery, they played badminton. They did languages I think and some people took their O-levels from there.”

Finally, the sisters had to leave. The contents of the convent were cleared.

“I remember them selling furniture and things from there, and also they had woollen underwear, combinations and things like that, that they actually burnt, they had bonfires. They had davenports, the writing desks, they sold those quite cheaply, and I couldn’t afford to buy one at the time, which was infuriating. And pots and pans were sold off. I would have thought they would have gone to an auctioneer or something to come in, but they didn’t.”

By this time the Training School had closed, and the young women had gone. But they were not the only people who had found a refuge at the Good Shepherd. The order had sheltered young and old women, and the older ladies remained.

They are only mentioned indirectly in the archives, and they seem to have been almost forgotten. But Ann Wolfe, who lived close to the convent, remembers them.

“I didn’t come in contact with the nuns until the laundry had finished, but they had elderly ladies there, who had been in care in their youth and they’d obviously stayed on.

“The ladies had stayed all their lives at the Convent. I would think there were quite a few of them. They used to scuttle around a bit. They’d not made their mark in life. They didn’t have any money. They had nothing. They relied really on charity.

“They just worked all their lives, cleaning.

“This particular lady, Frazey Wishart, her father was in the army. Whether it was after the war or wartime I don’t know, her mother died, and she was put in the care of the nuns, but I believe that that was in the West Country.

“Frazey was such a gentle soul, she loved to help, and she used to make the tea for the Adult Education in the evening, and she loved to do that. She would come down and chat, because perhaps the others were getting a bit grumpy. 

“Why were some of them there? I mean, Frazey was only there because her father couldn’t manage her, which seems very hard.

“As it was closing, some went up to Liverpool, and I know that in the end Frazey went to Staplehurst.

“She was a wonderful old lady, she really was, and it’s sad that she’d never had much of a life. But she didn’t complain, she just went on her way, and she’d help anybody.”

he Convent of the Good Shepherd alongside Iden Manor, Staplehurst, 1936..JPG

The new home for the elderly ladies at the convent. The Convent of the Good Shepherd, alongside Iden Manor, Staplehurst, 1936. (Image courtesy of Britain from Above.Britain from Above.)

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SOURCES.

With many thanks to Ann Wolfe. All quotations courtesy of Ann Wolfe.

National Archives. CHILDREN: Order of the Good Shepherd: classification of cases in convents into age groups. HO 45/21989

National Archives. Highams Hall, Chertsey Road, Windlesham, Surrey: registration. BN 62/3067

Sally Clark. “Looking back to the work of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent in Windlesham 1937 – 1979.”  Windlesham Magazine, March 2014.

(As far as I know the Woking Review has ceased publication, and I cannot trace the current owner of their archive. If anyone has any information on this I will be very glad to hear from them.)

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